Writing Life No. 16: An Interview with Warwick Anderson

This article is part of the series:
Figure 1: Writing and thinking in anticipation of writing: notes stacked in files next to a computer (Warkwick’s desk).

In the early days of freedom after a long lockdown in Sydney, I visited Warwick Anderson at his light-filled house perched at the top of a hill looking over rusted industrial relics to the shimmer and glare of the city. Through his critical writing about race, science, and medicine, Warwick has helped shape and refashion several fields. Beginning in the pandemic, we worked our way back through the functions which writing has performed: a way of organising the world, an escape from fixed paths, a moral charge, an act of epistemological disruption. 

James Dunk: If we could start toward the end – what was your last published piece of writing?

Warwick Anderson: Well, I’ve written about ten short essays for various publications over the last 18 months about the pandemic. I’d like to move on, but I keep seeing new aspects of it. It’s irritating and distracting, of course. The most substantive essay is a re-framing of disease modeling as a “crisis technology,” published earlier this year in Social Studies of Science. I’ve recently finished another essay on the militarization of the vaccine rollout in Australia, to be published in Arena Quarterly, an obscure journal issued by a typically Melbourne Marxisant cult, which I belonged to last century. So, it won’t be read by many. I’m now working up essays on Covid waste, or post-colonic pandemic biopolitics as I like to think of it, and on emerging diseases as autoimmune responses in the capitalist world system.

JD: Can you say a bit about where the idea for the disease modeling essay came from?

WA: From the beginning of my career, I’ve engaged critically with what counts as “evidence” and “expertise” in biomedicine, especially with colonial and racist formations of evidence and biological reasoning. Recently, I’ve been drawn particularly to critique of the models shaping decision making in policy and politics. Epidemic modeling and disease intelligence were developed and trialed through colonial engagements, so that fits with my longstanding interest in science and colonialism. Some of the modeling was distinctly imperial, such as the early tropical studies of Ronald Ross, or settler colonial like Frank Fenner’s cold-war modeling of myxomatosis in outback Australia, or neocolonial like Neil Ferguson’s recent modeling of influenza outbreaks in Asia. These colonial technologies are currently determining our concepts, across the world, of what the pandemic is, how it begins and how we may say it ends—or not. Well, I thought, hang on, shouldn’t I have a go at decolonizing this damn pandemic? At least, I felt I should try to examine its framing critically…. 

JD: What are you trying to achieve by writing on Covid and modeling?

WA: Well, it’s a good question. I’ve written over a hundred articles on a multitude of topics now – why do I keep doing it? I think what I first want to do is try to understand these events, or phenomena. The research and the writing itself, the anticipation of writing and the process of writing, help to me to see more clearly what’s going on. So that’s often the prompt. I’ve noticed, however, particularly in the last decade or so, that I also want to reshape debate through my writing – not only within science and technology studies, history of science, history of medicine, medical anthropology – but more generally, even among policymakers.

JD: So – first to understand, and then also to reshape?

WA: That’s what I’d like to do. Even though I suspect that the aspiration to influence may derive partly from a sense of entitlement, the idea that as an aging whitefella, I ought to be the one to direct these conversations. You’ll recall that early in the pandemic I wrote a piece ridiculing elderly white male philosophers who felt compelled to mouth off about a virus they didn’t understand, as if the rest of us were hanging on their every word. I don’t want to sound like them. All the same, given the standard of contemporary debate, I expect that as a critical historian of medicine and STS scholar I’ve got something to offer.

Early in my career, I resisted writing about issues of contemporary concern. I remember talking about this with a colleague, Allan Brandt, at Harvard in the early 90s. Allan has always wanted historical analysis to inform policy. But I resisted that notion because I thought all we have to offer is the assertion that no matter how complicated an issue may seem, it’s really far, far more complex. That’s not something policy makers want to hear. Rather smugly, I believed that if you’re a good historian, interested in complexity and ambiguity, you’re not going to try to influence debate.

But things changed when I returned to Australia in the late 90s. Inevitably, given that I was writing about race and colonialism and medicine, I became involved in debates about whiteness, immigration, and Indigenous dispossession in Australia. It was a time very much like what we’re experiencing again. There was the rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation and various other groups, all these neo-fascist, white nationalist groups. And I was drawn into the debate. I remember giving some public lectures, somewhat reluctantly, mostly at the behest of my colleagues, who were already actively involved in these issues. At one large meeting, I was denounced by the leader of Australia First as a traitor to my race, which I found rather dated but also chilling. It galvanized me, I suppose. I realized I could contribute something, something traitorous, and perhaps it might even be my duty to do so. So, I overcame my reticence, you could say.

JD: But aren’t they quite distinct goals – writing to understanding and writing to shape debate?

WA: When I’m writing I’m never sure what effect the finished product will have. It’s hard to predict what will happen once anything goes into the world. Sometimes a piece that seems almost antiquarian, of personal interest only, can have a huge impact, and at other times something that seems proximate to contemporary debate sinks without a trace. I find it very hard to gauge what the outcome will be.

All the same, I think it’s important that those of us working in the critical humanities and critical social sciences are at least attuned to contemporary controversies. R.G. Collingwood observed almost a century ago that for historians – and others in the humanities, too – writing is a moral enterprise, we write to understand our place in the world and our responsibilities in it. I think that pertains to all writers these days.

JD: With Covid-19, were you consciously using writing to figure out your response to these global events?

WA: So much of what I’ve written in the past year and a half is different from what I customarily write. It seems much more urgent. I’m not sure what drives me to write so much about the pandemic. One could say it’s almost an “overwritten” pandemic, and I’m not sure how much will have any lasting impact. There’s a sense one needs to say something about it, that one needs to have some sense of control, if only though self-expression, during the crisis, as it’s conceived.

But obviously I do hope that that my work will have some influence on the way we understand the pandemic and intervene in it. At times, it all seems futile, but there are moments when one has at least the illusion of influence. For example, Lieutenant-General John Frewen, who’s been leading the previously stumbling vaccine rollout in Australia, called me at one point to ask for advice on the history of vaccine rollouts. He wanted, in a sense, the lessons of history. I thought how ironic, given that I’ve been writing both about the dangers of the militarization of public health responses and against any search for facile lessons of history. Of course, I took the call and did my best, shamelessly, to deliver the lessons of history. Who knows if it meant anything to him.

Like many others, I’ve found the claims of the pandemic inescapable. But it’s the same with climate change and health. Long before Covid-19, I’d abandoned other projects in favor of working out the conceptual development of what’s come to be known as planetary health. That’s the idea that the health of human populations depends on the health of global ecosystems, of the planet’s life support systems. Along with you and others, I’ve been trying to write critically about that, trying to expand the conceptual range of planetary health, to begin to decolonize it maybe, so that it might include other ideas about the effects of environment on health. That’s another project that I feel almost magnetically drawn to at the moment.

JD: As part of your moral engagement with the world.

WA: I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I think that addressing these contemporary predicaments is an ethical duty for contemporary scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

JD: This gets us to the relationship between thinking and writing. Do you see writing as a form of thinking, or thinking as something that must be done before you can write?

WA: I tend to think through things as much as I can before I start writing. I’ll accumulate notes – old fashioned handwritten notes – until they reach a pile a foot high or so and put them beside the computer in the right order. Before I begin, I need to have the whole essay in my mind from start to finish; I need to have an order and I need to have the first paragraph. Once I have all that, I just sit down and, usually over the course of ten days, write an essay or a chapter. I start each morning and try to write at least 600 words a day. I’ll look at them the following morning, make some minor revisions, and go on to the next 600. After that, I don’t change much at all. The writing process itself has changed very little. When I’m fully immersed in a writing project, I’ll wake up in the morning with a whole paragraph in my head and just set it down.

There’s nothing graceful about it, believe me. I must be in the right position mentally, I must have it all composed before I start, and once I’m there, I begin. The hardest task, of course, is the beginning. Interestingly, it gets harder as one ages, I find, to start an essay or a chapter. But once I begin, it’s always the same. Once I get into it, I can easily find an hour here or there and just continue writing. But I need to have the right conditions to begin. Many years ago, I used to go rock climbing. I was never particularly good, but I enjoyed it for a while. Yet by the age of thirty, I found I was dithering more and more, delaying starting the climb. I realized that the longer I’d been climbing, the harder it was to lead a new ascent. So, I gave it up. Maybe one day I’ll do the same with writing.

JD: Why do you think that is?

WA: I think I just got scared. I was getting wiser, certainly more apprehensive about things that could go wrong. One could say the same about writing, perhaps. There’s less at stake, of course. If one fails on a climb, there are potentially severe consequences.

JD: But there may be reputational consequences in writing which increase over time.Do you find the writing process itself satisfying?

WA: There are different forms of satisfaction. I usually become immersed in the writing, and I like the intense contemplation that putting together sentences requires. The satisfaction of having finished resembles looking at what one imagines to be a fine object, a finished piece. They are different forms of satisfaction, or perhaps pride. I suspect the former is morally superior to the latter.

JD: In your research and writing you’ve explored much of the world. How strongly is writing steeped in place for you?

WA: I’ve always felt obliged to spend some time in a place before writing about it. When I was writing about the Culion Leper Colony in the Philippines, to take one example, I made what was then quite a difficult trip there. Being there transformed my sense of the story. I did actually find an archive, a stack of papers rotting away in a shed, and went through them, but just going there gave me sense of the isolation and misery – a sense of where and how people had lived. Similarly, it was particularly important for research on kuru that I went to the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, where the Fore people, who were afflicted with the disease, live. That was a revelation. It made me attempt to conceive modern biomedical science in Fore terms.

JD: Is this part of the ethics of research for you?

WA: It’s both practical and ethical, I suppose. But it’s a conundrum, surely, that whereas one feels obliged to conduct research ethically, in this way, one’s writing often is not impelled by the same norms. Writing up these things is ethically dubious, inherently so. It gets back to what I was saying before about the dangers of a sense of entitlement, about the desire for control. It reminds me of a conversation I had some fifteen years ago with Carleton Gajdusek, in Amsterdam. Gajdusek was one of the protagonists in the kuru story, the scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for his discovery of what was called then the slow virus, which allegedly was causing kuru among the Fore in New Guinea. Now, at this time he assumed I was writing his biography. In fact, I was writing the story of the investigation of kuru, but inevitably, being such an egoist and so solipsistic, he thought it must have been his biography. Anyhow, one day, when I was visiting, I had to take Carleton to the Amsterdam Medical Center. Once there, he began blaming the contact of the nurses for precipitating his medical problem; whenever a nurse went near him, he would have an episode. But then he turned to me and said, “You’re doing this. You’re causing this problem. Every time you mention the word kuru you bring this on.” I said to him, “That can’t be the case, I’m not causing these problems. Don’t be absurd.” The exchange puzzled me. Later I realized that Carleton was accusing me of sorcery, the form of sorcery that he knew so much about from working with the Fore. The Fore, of course, had attributed kuru to sorcery, by which they meant an illicit conjuring with a bodily discard, or a piece of somebody, to exert control – an unfair or immoral means of social advancement, a forbidden means of controlling others. I realized Carleton was accusing me of sorcery, that by saying the word “kuru” I was causing bad things to happen to him, weakening him, if you like, seeking to control him, dominate him, through nefarious means. And then, much later, I understood that he was talking about me as a writer – and that his accusation was true. I came to understand that my writing about him and others might be imagined as a means of illicitly gaining some sort of social advancement or control over them.

JD: That all writers are sorcerers?

WA: I think Gajdusek was correct, that writing is a form of sorcery, and therefore inherently unethical.

JD: Does collaborative writing have different politics? Is it still sorcery?

WA: One can have cabals and covens, can’t one? In any case, I believe there’s still that rather vexed and difficult relationship with the subject – that there’s inevitably exploitation involved in writing, the creation of different power relations. The writer might give subjects agency, but rarely genuine co-authorship. It’s a colonial relation, no doubt.

JD: Is history more sorcerous than other kinds of writing? Prone to necromancy, perhaps?

WA: Most of my writing has concerned recent history. At the beginning of my career, I was writing about the 18th and 19th centuries, but increasingly I’ve been concerned with people who are still alive, which makes these issues more acute. The stakes are perhaps greater and more salient. But it may also mean the power relations are more evenly balanced, or symmetrical, because sometimes the subject speaks back.

It wasn’t a problem with Gajdusek because he could speak back, and speak he did, without ceasing. But it was a particular issue with the Fore, who didn’t have any sort of platform. The problem with research and writing more generally, even with ostensibly postcolonial approaches, is that one is making a claim over some other person or place that may not be legitimate. It’s important to be aware of this and not to try to gloss over it.

JD: How do you guard against that kind of exploitation?

WA: The best way of guarding against it is to develop relationships with the people one is writing about, or even with their descendants and associates. That’s often very hard. I think that’s one of the reasons for visiting these places, particularly out-of-the-way places like the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea. When I went there, outsiders had to go in and out by helicopter. It was inconvenient and expensive and embarrassing. But it’s important to develop relationships that go beyond the formulaic requirements of the usual ethics protocols. One must develop close and respectful relationships with people, ideally collaboration and even co-authorship.

One of the things I tried to do in the kuru book was allow the voices and opinions of the Fore people to shape the narrative, as much as I could. I don’t think it is widely appreciated that I was trying to re-conceptualize scientific expeditions in Fore terms. But there are inherent problems with this, of course, because I’m a white man coming from elsewhere….

JD: … in a helicopter …

WA: Yes, in a helicopter…. Ideally, one would have Fore writing about what we call science, telling these stories. They do narrate these events among themselves, as I pointed out in the book, but their perceptions don’t otherwise get widespread circulation. I was trying to circulate them better. It would be nice if they were not just given agency, but also authorship, I agree. But that was practically impossible, which gets us back to the unethical nature of writing.

JD: Perhaps we might just do a little historicizing of you? When do you first begin to write – or begin that process of thinking in anticipation of writing?

WA: I did that through secondary school, and into university. Although I studied medicine at university, I took some pride in my essays and case reports. But I grew up with writers, in a household where both parents were writing. My mother wrote a couple of books, and my father wrote 40 or 50 books. I simply assumed that’s what grown-ups do.

JD: That it was normal?

WA: That it was necessary. For my father it had been an obsession, at least until he got into his 50s. I think something happened then and he ran out of steam, lost his nerve. But until then he was a prodigious writer. He would stay up all night writing.

When I went into medicine—a rebellious act—I discovered that I liked to write poetry, mostly as recreation. I published a lot of poems in various magazines and eventually collected them all in a slim volume. But this sort of writing was something I did when I wasn’t doing medicine. I stopped writing poetry when I started graduate school at Penn because writing became my work. I felt I should be doing all this other writing, not poetry. But poetry had been my introduction to writing in public, as it were, and the result was a training in concision. A few readers complain that my narratives are too dense. I think that’s because I started off writing poetry.

JD: Your poetry probably also accounts for some of the praise you’ve received, surely.

WA: Perhaps, but I think some of my prose, early on, was over-literary, as well as too allusive and impressionistic.

JD: How has your craft changed over time?

WA: I think my writing has become less dense and coded with time, less abbreviated and a little more elaborate, circumstantial perhaps, but never quite conversational. But there are many continuities too. I still usually need decades to work up an argument properly, certainly for a book, and I have three or four such projects going on even now. One of the legacies of medical training is multitasking – you need to manage multiple cases at the same time, and I’ve managed multiple book projects at the same time or tried anyhow. I can imagine in my allotted span simply finishing off what I began ten or twenty years ago, rather than starting anything new. But then again, I’ve recently become increasingly interested in late style, if you like, going back to Theodor Adorno and Edward Said, it would be good to develop a late style, I think. Though it may also be a euphemism for an ending or terminal decline.

JD: Are you already working on a late style?

WA: I don’t think so. I know what it would be, I just don’t know that I have the time or the courage to do it. I’ve got a particular project from the early 1990s, on transparency and embodiment, and I think I could write an interestingly fragmented narrative about the subject. Completely different in style to anything I’ve written before and anything other historians of science and medicine have written, or so I believe. Whether I’ll ever get around to it, I don’t know. The appeal may be that I find the writing of conventional narrative, whether in article or book form, not to be challenging enough these days. At least not once I get started on it. I know I can do that. I’ve done it many times before. Once I begin, it’s straightforward – and almost formulaic. I’d like to do something weird and perhaps inexplicable, something that wouldn’t be recognized and appreciated as conventional scholarly writing.

JD: Could that desire also be a response to the ethical discussion we had earlier – might a fragmentary narrative be one answer to those ethical problems of control and power?

WA: Yes, it may be. That’s an interesting observation. Years ago, I talked about this with Nathaniel Kahn, who made a film about his father Louis Kahn, My Architect, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. After my kuru book was published, Bosse Lindquist, the Swedish filmmaker, made a documentary, so to speak, about Carleton Gajdusek, a sorcery performance if ever there was, which degenerated into a sort of inquest, which I felt verged on exploitation. I’ve written about this. Then Werner Herzog hovered around, fleetingly interested, so I was told. Anyhow, I was thinking of Bosse’s film when Nathaniel and I were talking about the ethics of making a film about the kuru investigations, about the encounters of Fore and scientists—how could we do that ethically, knowing what we know. We wanted to get away from editorial selection, thematic coherence, narrative closure, away from exploitation and control. Then Nathaniel said, the only way to do this ethically would be to use “found footage,” assembling the historical clips almost haphazardly, raw rather than over-cooked. A film without the white man’s narrative arc. Of course, we never did it. We found a solution, but it seemed overwhelming, or antithetical to what we’ve been about. But that’s what I mean by late style: found footage.

JD: Presented for interpretation.

WA: Yes, though there’s always an implicit authorial presence. A self to be satisfied.

JD: Which is fitting because you’re a writer, it’s your way of being in the world.

WA: Yes, a writer, and therefore a person of dubious ethics.

Figure 2: James’s desk

James Dunk is a Research Fellow in the Department of History and the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. His prize-winning first book, Bedlam at Botany Bay, is a cultural and political history of Australian madness, and he now writes on psychology, health and medicine, and the planetary environment. Twitter: @JamesHDunk

Warwick Anderson is Janet Dora Hine Professor of Politics, Governance and Ethics in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. His books include Intolerant Bodies, The Collectors of Lost Souls, Colonial Pathologies and The Cultivation of Whiteness.

About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

The first installment of the series appeared weekly in Somatosphere from early December 2020 and the second from June 2021. We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest in contributing to Series 3.

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